In the second half of May 2015, a refugee boat crisis unfolded in the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia, almost in parallel with the refugee boat crisis in the Mediterranean. Together, both crises highlight security and humanitarian implications for the greater wave of refugee crises that can be expected to occur in the future. Since the middle of May 2015, over 3,000 refugees who had been cast adrift in the Andaman Sea by human traffickers have been temporarily resettled in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, with an estimated 2,600 awaiting rescue. Most of these refugees are Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar, with the remainder being economic migrants from Bangladesh (Mayberry, 2015). It should be noted at this point that this paper shall include both asylum seekers and economic migrants under the term “refugees” in recognition of the fact that refugees in the real world usually seek both asylum from persecution as well as improved economic opportunities for themselves and their families (Siegfried, 2015c).
The UNHCR estimates that 88,000 Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi economic migrants have crossed the Andaman Sea through human trafficking networks since early 2014, with 25,000 of them having left in the first quarter of 2015. The number of refugees making the journey tripled in 2012 when anti-Rohingya persecution intensified in Myanmar. An estimated 1,000 refugees have lost their lives in the passage, with 300 of them having perished in the first half of 2015. An unknown number have died in detention camps operated by the traffickers that held the refugees for ransom, as was been highlighted by the grisly discovery of mass graves of the trafficked victims. As it turned out, the profits to the traffickers don’t come from the price of passage, which is usually low or even free. Instead, the traffickers extract their profits from the exorbitant ransoms paid by the families of the trafficked individuals. This aspect of the human traffickers’ business plan was revealed when their trafficking networks were unexpectedly disrupted by the Thai government in mid-May 2015, leading the traffickers to abandon their jungle camps and disable their boats, leaving their human cargo to perish in the open water (Bookbinder, 2015; Mayberry, 2015; Ramakrishnan, 2015; Siegfried, 2015a).
The refusal of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to offer permanent resettlement to the Rohingya stands in sharp contrast to their hospitality to refugees of previous crises, in particular the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, and refugees from Aceh during the civil war and 2004 tsunami.
While the rescued Bangladeshi economic migrants will be repatriated back to Bangladesh, the Rohingya asylum seekers face an unclear future (Lovett & Than, 2015; Rachman, 2015; “Bangladesh says,” 2015). Myanmar has denied the existence of the Rohingya and insists the refugees are all Bangladeshi economic migrants. As such it plans to deport those refugees it has rescued to Bangladesh, and is unlikely to accept Rohingya asylum seekers rescued by its neighbours (“Dozens of Corpses,” 2015; “Migrants found,” 2015). In the meantime the Thai government has assigned a helicopter carrier to help with the processing of the rescued refugees. While it will allow injured or ill refugees to come on Thai soil for medical treatment, the government has warned that any such refugees will be charged with illegal entry (“Thai PM,” 2015). After receiving criticism for their initial policy of pushing the disabled refugee boats back to sea, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have agreed to temporarily host the refugees, but only for year, after which they are to be resettled in third countries (Bookbinder, 2015; Mayberry, 2015).
Even before the current crisis erupted, over 138,000 refugees from Myanmar were already registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia awaiting resettlement in third countries. The US, which traditionally receives the largest number of the world’s refugees, has only accepted 7,500 of these Malaysian refugees from Myanmar this year, while Australia has rejected accepting any at all, which suggests that such resettlement will not be sufficient as a solution for the current crisis. The refusal of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to offer permanent resettlement to the Rohingya stands in sharp contrast to their hospitality to refugees of previous crises, in particular the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, and refugees from Aceh during the civil war and 2004 tsunami (Mayberry, 2015; Medhora, 2015). A possible explanation will be considered later in this paper. The West African country of Gambia has agreed to accept the Rohingya, but there are concerns whether it has the economic and social capacity to permanently host these refugees, especially since Gambian economic refugees are participating in the current Mediterranean refugee crisis (Buckley & Ramzy, 2015).
So far the Malaysian police have discovered 28 detention camps operated by the human trafficking networks, as well as mass graves of deceased trafficking victims. A similar network of human trafficking camps has been discovered across the border in Thailand. Despite the existence of police reports dating back to 2008 from concerned local villagers complaining about the existence of these camps, the Malaysian police claim they only learned about these camps when the current crisis erupted (Beh, 2015; Ramakrishnan, 2015). The villagers have contradicted this, noting that in the past they have had to contact the authorities to request medical assistance for escaped Rohingya trafficking victims. Indeed, in 2014, the US State Department highlighted the Malaysian government’s failure to stop the exploitative human trafficking networks operating on its soil (Cheney, 2015). In the meantime, the Malaysian police have identified ethnic Rohingya as leaders of the human trafficking syndicates smuggling migrants into Malaysia, with local Malaysians serving as their accomplices (“Malaysian Official,” 2015). So far 12 Malaysian police officers have been arrested on suspicion of their possible collaboration with the human traffickers, while over 50 officials, including an army general, have been arrested in a similar crackdown in Thailand. Thai authorities have also arrested key members of a human trafficking syndicate (Lefevre & Belford, 2015; “12 policemen,” 2015; “Rohingya trafficking,” 2015).
The weaknesses in border security that have been exposed in the current crisis should be read as an urgent warning for regional governments to identify any other gaps in their insecure borders. The urgency is not just related to the illicit human trafficking flows of the current crisis. A looming threat is that of the human trafficking flows that bring potential jihadist fighters from Southeast Asia to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and seasoned fighters from IS back to their home countries in Southeast Asia. This is not an idle threat, as jihadist fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore have already found their way to IS to form a Southeast Asian military unit consisting of about 700 fighters (Rogin, 2015; “The Looming Shadow,” 2015).
The Land of Opportunity
Malaysia was the favored destination of the ill-fated refugees in the current crisis, and has long been the destination of choice in the years when the human trafficking networks were in operation. Malaysia’s attraction for the refugees stems partly from its being a Muslim country and partly from its employment opportunities for low-skilled labour. Most importantly, the weaknesses in Malaysia’s border security that long allowed the human trafficking networks to land their boats and operate their detention camps with impunity have also allowed a sizable number of illegal immigrants to remain with relative security in the country (Siegfried, 2015a).
While Malaysia offers living conditions for Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi economic migrants that are relatively attractive compared to where they came from, these living conditions are comparatively harsher relative to those of migrants who settled in Malaysia legally. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and the government does not recognize asylum seekers like the Rohingya. As such Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi economic migrants who arrived in Malaysia illegally though human trafficking networks live a precarious existence. As they lack the legal papers to obtain legitimate employment, they have to settle for lowly paid and frequently dangerous employment in unregulated industries. They also face problems finding proper housing, and lack the legal papers to receive subsidized or free health care, education, and other social services provided by the government (Ng, 2015).
The difficulties that would have been faced by the Bangladeshi economic migrants had they successfully been trafficked into Malaysia have prompted Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to chastise them as being mentally ill, as she noted that Bangladesh’s economic growth has created enough jobs for them to make a living without having to leave the country (“Bangladesh PM,” 2015). However, while Bangladesh has indeed enjoyed rapid economic growth since the 1990s of 5 to 6% GDP growth per annum, job growth in the formal sector remains weak, with unemployment and underemployment remaining widespread. Poverty afflicts over half the population. This has motivated many Bangladeshis to seek their fortunes overseas. Remittances from family members who have found employment overseas have become an important source of sustenance for many Bangladeshis. In 2010 such remittances accounted for over 10% of the country’s GDP (Khatiwada, 2013; Kibria, 2011; Siddiqui, 2003). The Bangladeshi economic migrants who have been caught up in the current crisis were similarly seeking to join their fellow countrymen in making a living overseas for themselves and their families.
The humanitarian plight of the Rohingya stems in part from Myanmar’s sense of insecurity with regard to its border with Bangladesh. The Myanmar government regards the country’s border with Bangladesh as its “most vulnerable frontier.” The frontier region between Bangladesh and Myanmar has historically been a zone of population flows which have given rise to the Rohingya community (Steinberg, 2013, p. 23). The Myanmar government has described the Rohingya as Bengali illegal immigrants who have no legal rights (p. 109). The Rohingya were formally stripped of their citizenship under a 1982 citizenship law and have since been effectively stateless. While the US has called on Myanmar to restore the citizenship of the Rohingya, an ongoing citizenship verification program for the Rohingya has been opposed by xenophobic Buddhist nationalists as well as the Rohingya themselves, as they reject the program’s identification of them as Bengalis (Mayberry, 2015). Across the border, Bangladesh has also disowned the Rohingya and will not offer them legal residency (Steinberg, 2015, p. 326). Indeed, the Bangladeshi government regards the presence of Rohingya refugees in their country as an impediment to Bangladesh’s economic development. In particular, the government sees the presence of Rohingya refugee camps as impeding the development of the tourist infrastructure of Cox’s Bazar, and is considering a forced relocation of these camps (“Rohingya in Bangladesh,” 2015).
Contrary to the ahistorical assertions of the Myanmar government and xenophobic Buddhist nationalists, the Muslim presence on Myanmar’s Arakan coast is not recent, but instead dates back at least a millennium, with Arab traders having had commerce with the region since the 8th century CE. Muslim settlements in the territory of today’s Myanmar were also founded with the Yuan conquests of the 13th century and the subsequent arrival of Chinese Muslim caravans from Yunnan (Tagliacozzo, 2014, pp. 84-85). The Rohingya, who constitute the largest Muslim community in Myanmar, trace their lineage to an independent kingdom in Arakan that existed in the 15th and 16th centuries that had commerce with Bengal. During the British colonial period, Arakan was governed as a part of the Indian province of Bengal, which resulted in the migration of Muslims from Bengal into Rohingya settlements in Arakan (Selth, 2003, p. 7).
Today, an estimated 800,000 Rohingya live in townships along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where their movements are tightly regulated (Steinberg, 2013, p. 109; Steinberg, 2015, p. 326). The Buddhists of Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) see the Rohingya as a socio-economic problem, and have supported military pogroms against them (Selth, 2003, p. 12). Apart from their Islamophobia, the Rakhine Buddhists see the Rohingya as competitors for scarce economic resources (Wolf & Shams, 2015). The long years of persecution have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar. In 1978 and 1991-92, violent military persecution prompted groups of 200,000 Rohingya each time to cross into Bangladesh, with most returning to Myanmar later under UN repatriation (Steinberg, 2013, p. 201; Tagliacozzo, 2014, pp. 90-91). About 32,000 Rohingya currently live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, with smaller groups of Rohingya living in refugee camps in India (Muhammed, 2015; “Bangladesh plans,” 2015).
The Buddhists of Rakhine state see the Rohingya as a socio-economic problem, and have supported military pogroms against them. Apart from their Islamophobia, the Rakhine Buddhists see the Rohingya as competitors for scarce economic resources.
Violence against the Rohingya has intensified in recent years, with anti-Rohingya pogroms in Rakhine state and its capital Sittwe in June and October 2012 soon followed in other cities across Myanmar (Haacke, 2015, p. 305). The violence has led to the internal displacement of almost 140,000 Rohingya and the deaths of over 250 (Steinberg, 2015, p. 326). Life in camps for internally displaced Rohingya has been made intolerable with overcrowding, lack of proper sanitation, and strict restrictions on travel preventing access to markets, jobs, and humanitarian assistance (Human Rights Watch, 2013, p. 6). The intensified persecution has prompted an exodus of Rohingya. With Bangladesh having closed its borders, tens of thousands of desperate Rohingya have braved the maritime human trafficking networks to cross into friendlier countries like Malaysia (Human Rights Watch, 2013, p. 16; Steinberg, 2013, p. 109).
The recent round of ethnic violence against the Rohingya has ironically been facilitated by the recent political liberalization of the country, which has allowed greater freedom of expression to violent nationalist groups like the xenophobic 969 movement (Webb,2015). It should be noted that the Rohingya are not the only ethnic minority group to suffer from state-sanctioned xenophobia in Myanmar (Lim, 2015b). The current government has begun enacting a series of racial and religious “protection” laws that will target the Rohingya and other disfavored ethnic minorities, including a population law that will allow the government to control the targeted groups’ birthrates (Blake, 2015). These xenophobic policies reflect nativist sentiments among the ordinary people which have been amplified by the intervention of nationalist Buddhist monks, and violence has been directed at sympathetic Buddhists who have tried to help the Rohingya (Haacke, 2015, p. 306; Maung, 2013). Indeed, in the current crisis Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine state have angrily protested a recent rescue by the Myanmar navy of over 900 refugees, and have called for the immediate deportation of these refugees to Bangladesh (“Anti-migrant protests,” 2015).
Experts believe chances are remote that the government will accept the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. Indeed, observers note that the escalating state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya—including killings, destruction of property, population displacement, and forced migration—increasingly amount to genocide (Haacke, 2015, p. 306; Maung, 2013; Maung & Cowley, 2014, pp. 684-686). If this interpretation is accurate, the failure of Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbours to adequately respond to the current refugee crisis portends an even worse humanitarian catastrophe in the near future.
The ungenerous refusal of Southeast Asia’s prosperous “tiger” economies to offer permanent shelter to the Rohingya asylum seekers echoes a similar refusal by the Australian government, which since 2013 has had a policy of turning away refugee boats (Cronin & Weatherby, 2015). The Australian government has in fact gone further and paid for billboards in Myanmar, India, and other developing countries to warn potential refugees against travelling to Australia illicitly to seek asylum (Jesudason, 2015). As a billboard in Sri Lanka sternly warns: “Never come to Australia without a visa! Never put your feet in Australia without a visa. In Australia there is a military that enforces this. People who come by boat without a visa will never be allowed to enter and boats that go to Australia without permission are returned to the deep sea.” (Quoted in Jesudason, 2015).
Australia has also begun deporting refugees currently detained in its offshore refugee camp in the Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia. Coincidently, a Rohingya asylum seeker was among the first group of refugees to be resettled in Cambodia under this arrangement (Murdoch, 2015).
One reason for the lack of generosity of these wealthy governments is the fear that offering naturalization to the current group of Rohingya asylum seekers will attract even more to attempt the passage (Ng, 2015). This would certainly be a plausible scenario should the Myanmar government intensify its violence against the Rohingya. The case of Tanzania stands as a warning to countries considering naturalization of large groups of refugees, as the Tanzanian government’s 2014 decision to offer citizenship to 200,000 Burundian refugees from the country’s 1972 civil war has predictably resulted in a flood of over 64,000 new Burundian refugees fleeing the country’s latest political crisis (Essa, 2015). These fears of large inflows of refugees are not limited to the Asia-Pacific region. The current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which has seen 3,500 refugee drownings in 2014, and almost 2,000 so far this year, has prompted military chiefs from the European Union to agree on a plan to use military force against refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean to Europe (Amnesty International, 2015; “EU plan,” 2015; Siegfried, 2015b).
Significantly, these ungenerous policies set a strong precedent for how governments may choose to deal with future refugee crises. The probable future flood of Rohingya seeking asylum from intensified persecution has already been mentioned. A different event that is likely to trigger large refugee flows is climate change, with the long-anticipated inundation of low-lying lands around the world creating floods of climate change refugees. In particular, the World Bank anticipates Bangladesh to be one of the countries to be worst affected by flooding from intensified cyclones and the rise in the sea level, and the resulting torrent of refugee boats from Bangladesh’s inundated lands will pose a strong security and humanitarian challenge to the countries of the Asia-Pacific (“Warming Climate,” 2013). How these countries act today will offer a guide as to how they can be expected to act then.
This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015a). Since that time of writing, there has been improved police action against human traffickers in Bangladesh and Thailand. This has resulted in a steep drop in the number of refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar attempting to cross into Malaysia by boat. According to the Arakan Project, approximately 1,500 refugees attempted the crossing between September and December 2015, compared with 32,000 who attempted the same crossing between September and December 2014 (Lefevre & Thepgumpanat, 2016). While the benefits of such effective policing against human trafficking networks holds lessons for other regions in the world facing refugee crises of their own, in particular Europe, the root causes motivating the refugees have not been addressed. This is especially so in the case of the Rohingya. In the November 2015 general elections in Myanmar, the Rohingya and other Muslim groups were disenfranchised, and Muslim candidates found themselves disqualified, leaving the new parliament without any Muslim representation (Holmes & Perria, 2015; McPherson & Saw, 2015). Troublingly, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 80% of the vote, does not consider the Rohingya issue as a priority, and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly ordered a purge of Muslims from the NLD before the general election in order to appease the majority Buddhist population’s growing anti-Muslim sentiment (Rigby, 2015; Safdar & Rees, 2015).
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